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Lest We Forget 

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The crematorium explodes, shooting fire into the sky. The prisoners at Auschwitz cheer in jubilation, peering through electrified barbed wire at the conflagration. Amid the alarms, SS guards rush, rifles out, at the imprisoned Jews. "Inside!" a guard barks. "Everyone inside the barracks! Schnell! Schnell!"

Sol Schindel, a 67-year-old insurance broker, is watching a play sponsored by the Holocaust Memorial Foundation--Susan Katz's Courage Untold, about the revolt at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. But he was there. At intermission he puts his hand to his chin. "We were running," he says. He still has his Polish accent. "I was working right behind the crematorium in the women's camp. All of a sudden I see people, in Russian, screaming "We are free!" I didn't realize what that meant, but they cut the wires and started to run. So I started running.

"I look around. I seen already shooting and tanks coming. I don't know from where they came, but they were shooting and killing people one by one, and so I lay down. And I saw already that I could not get out. So it came into my mind that I would give up."

Hundreds of Jews died that day in October 1944. Schindel was one of the few would-be escapees who survived. "I reported to the guards that I got lost," he says.

Until the late 1970s Schindel thought he was alone. He came to America in 1950 and changed his name from Salomon Schindelheim. For years he lived among his few surviving relatives who had left before the war, all of whom are now dead. In their place he has found a community of fellow Holocaust survivors.

At the center of this insular, tight-knit community is the Holocaust Memorial Foundation, a decade-old Skokie charity dedicated to the remembrance of terrors past. "We are witnesses to the greatest crime in history," says survivor Erna Gans, who is president of the foundation. "So we have to talk about it. We are the only witnesses. And when we are gone, the story will only be left to books."

In the foundation office at 4255 Main in Skokie, the story of the Holocaust is told by the walls. There, in grainy monochrome, are the Jewish prisoners. They starve on the trains from the Buchenwald concentration camp. They are corralled for execution in Lithuania. They lie in a mass grave, one emaciated body haphazardly tossed upon another, at the camp at Bergen-Belsen. The pictures are no starker than the book and film titles in the library: Night. Prisoner. Genocide.

In a black file cabinet are the tapes. It is here that the story of the survivors can be found, a permanent first-person chronicle of the Holocaust recorded on video at the foundation office. Sol Schindel made a tape. So did Rabbi Ernst M. Lorge. His voice is clear and heartfelt as he tells of the concentration camps.

"There was in most camps a conscious attempt to observe the Passover. In one someone had smuggled in a Haggadah, the prayer book for Passover. And at the threat of death, because they were supposed to be quiet at night, one of the knowledgeable men--it was a rabbi who was one of the prisoners--conducted a seder.

"There were many similar stories, all of which adds up to a clear picture, a fabric--that in utter desperation, they did not give up their religion, they did not give up their faith."

Rabbi Lorge, a German Jew, emigrated to America as the Jews were being stripped of all rights in Germany. He returned to his homeland a liberator, a chaplain in the U.S. Army. On the banks of the Elbe River, he led the first free Sabbath many survivors had heard after years of repression. He died on February 24 at the age of 73. His record of the Holocaust has outlived him.

The community is limited by its nature to those at least 50 years old, and death has claimed many in the past decade. Suicide rates are also high. In December two Connecticut survivors died after they turned on the gas in their oven. The current string of 50th anniversaries of Holocaust events--April 27, for instance, was the 50th anniversary of Himmler's directive to open Auschwitz--serves as a constant reminder that the last survivor will soon be gone.

It took more than the Holocaust to create the Holocaust Memorial Foundation. Until the late 70s there were few attempts to unite survivors, who preferred to keep to themselves and to keep quiet. There was often good reason for this. Joseph Neumann, who recently suffered a massive stroke, came to the United States in 1952 and found he had not left anti-Semitism at the gates of Auschwitz. "If you said you were in the concentration camps, you couldn't get a job. You learned not to tell. It was not different here, just quieter."

Many survivors were willing to live with such quiet prejudice. They had, after all, lived through the worst expression of anti-Semitism ever. They tried to lead normal lives, but the past often intruded.

"My son Alan, he was in kindergarten," Gans says. "After Thanksgiving all the children were talking in show-and-tell about what they did. My son came home and said, 'How come we have no family? How come we have no grandparents?' I could not answer."

Two local events made it impossible for them to go on trying simply to blend in. In 1975 Northwestern University professor Arthur Butz published The Hoax of the Twentieth Century, which denied that millions of Jews had been killed by the Nazis. "I didn't know any [other survivors] before that," Neumann says. "When Butz's book came out, people realized that they had to band together."

Three years later the American Nazi Party declared its plan to march through Skokie, which then had the largest concentration of survivors in America. Television showed the explosion of anger many survivors had kept inside for decades. "We found out the community did not understand what the Nazis were all about," Gans says. "They thought they were just simple thugs, like they thought in Germany before the Holocaust. We realized we had to have an educative process--even for the Jews."

The Nazis won a court case that allowed them their parade, but they called off the march when they realized the wall of resentment they faced. "The Skokie incident made survivors realize that they needed to speak out and not keep silent," says Ellyn Harris, who until March was the Holocaust Memorial Foundation's director. "Because if they didn't, there was more of a chance of it happening again."

In the spring of 1981 Gans and other survivors established the foundation. It had a rocky start, Gans says, because many survivors were unwilling to support the cause. "It was tough going. The survivor community was saying, 'How come we should give of ourselves? We have already given enough of ourselves. Let someone else do this.'" But in 1984 the foundation established its office, which became a meeting ground for survivors, who found that talking with those who had shared their fate alleviated some of their pain.

Schindel, who was arrested by the Germans when he was only 16, witnessed the deaths of hundreds of Jews during the five years he spent in the camps. His survival was not heroic--heroes quickly became martyrs. He beat the odds a day at a time. Schindel always has with him two reminders of those days. The number 161628 is still burned into his arm, and he wears an ornate gold ring. Its original owner was an SS officer, whose hand Schindel and a Russian prisoner cut off after the camps were liberated in 1945. Schindel will never part with the ring.

For years Schindel found it impossible to tell his story. But after the Butz and Skokie incidents, he began to talk to others who had suffered under the Nazis. "Ten years ago, it would have bothered me," he says. "I still had the dreams then. I dreamed for 25 years, every night, about what happened. But when I explored it, that eased the pain."

Since then, his testimony in the trial of a former SS guard helped lead to the man's deportation from the United States. The Office of Special Investigations, the arm of the U.S. Justice Department that hunts war criminals, says Chicago is its busiest jurisdiction.

Like most survivors, Schindel is not prone to forgive the perpetrators of the Holocaust or even their children. The rush toward reunification of Germany does not sit well with him. "A German student asked me if I'd ever forgive Germany, the young generation. So my answer was, 'Did the Christians forgive the Jews for Jesus?' I have no feeling for them, because they had no feelings for me."

Many citizens of the nations of Eastern Europe collaborated with the Nazis, and the recent upheavals there do not negate the memories of 50 years. Neumann, a Czech Jew who was in Prague during both the Nazi and Soviet invasions, does not wish his former countrymen the best in their experiment in democracy. "I want they should suffer, all of them. I was as good a Czech as they can be, but they still put me in a cattle car. I want they should all burn in flame."

The survivor community here uses the foundation to teach others how the Holocaust happened. The foundation sponsored the current exhibit at the Field Museum that portrays a boy's view of the Holocaust. Among those who attended the exhibit's opening was Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, who has long supported the survivors. The Vatican was silent during the Holocaust, but his efforts have brought Jews and Catholics closer together.

After lobbying by the foundation and other Jewish organizations, the state assembly passed legislation making classes on the Holocaust mandatory for all Illinois public schools. Classes began in January. (The need for the classes was highlighted last week when a Winnetka couple pulled their daughter out of Washburne school, stating in an interview with a Sun-Times reporter that "most accounts of the Holocaust are 'false, with gross exaggerations and distortions.'") A new program in Holocaust studies also has opened at Roosevelt University.

But the foundation's overriding mission is constant vigilance against a second Holocaust. The November 9, 1987, vandalism on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the "night of broken glass"--in Skokie, Albany Park, and Rogers Park in Chicago, as well as in other cities--and other such acts encourage the survivors' fears. "We just have to be watchful," Gans says. "The development of Nazi ideology is a very dangerous thing. We have to remember that Hitler came to power through the ballot box, through the democratic process."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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